Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Trade Transformation

A Trade Transformation

By David Sirota

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When it came to sex, Bill Clinton made us debate the definition of "is." Now, when it comes to economics, Hillary Clinton wants to debate the definition of "long," claiming this week in Ohio that "I've long been a critic of the shortcomings of NAFTA."

True, Clinton has recently criticized NAFTA -- the 1993 trade policy whose lack of labor and environmental protections encourages companies to move American jobs overseas. But cheap campaign rhetoric over a few months does not make one a longtime critic -- especially considering the record.

During Clinton's 1996 visit to Texas, United Press International reported that she "touted the president's support for NAFTA." In her memoir, Clinton trumpeted her husband's "successes on the budget, the Brady bill and NAFTA." The Buffalo News reports that in 1998 she "praised corporations for mounting 'a very effective business effort in the U.S. on behalf of NAFTA.'" And last year, her lead Wall Street fundraiser told reporters that Clinton remains "committed" to NAFTA's "free" trade structure.

Clinton's attempt to hide this history emulates a principle pioneered by George W. Bush in this, the age of stenographic journalism. As he made his unsubstantiated case for war, Bush proved that the media are willing to present politicians' lies as fact. Clinton simply figures that if she says she has "long been a critic" of NAFTA, then the assertion will be transcribed as truth.

That said, her U-turn is about more than dishonesty -- it is about the public will.

Back when Clinton was the Democrats' presumptive nominee, she wasn't saying much about trade. And in amassing her much-vaunted "experience" in Congress, she never led a fight to reform NAFTA. But now that she is in a competitive nomination contest, Clinton has to try to make her record palatable to voters rather than to corporate lobbyists -- and that means reflecting America's understandable anger.

A September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 59 percent of the country believes existing trade policy "has been bad for the U.S. economy." In January, Fortune magazine found 68 percent believes other countries "are benefiting the most from free trade, not the U.S." Exit polls in 2004 showed 70 percent of Ohio Democratic voters blamed trade policies for job losses, and those numbers could be even higher in the state's March 4 primary.

Shrewdly, Barack Obama is promising to transform trade policies so that they do not encourage outsourcing. He is also reminding voters of Clinton's support for NAFTA. The two-pronged message, while belated, perfectly illustrates the difference between "change" and "more of the same" -- and not just in the primary.

The Illinois senator says he wants to win back blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" in the general election. His populism on trade will help.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that "by a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy." Similarly, a Democracy Corps poll showed that unfair trade policy was the top concern of self-described Republicans who considered casting a Democratic vote in 2006. Against NAFTA cheerleader John McCain (R), Obama's fair trade position can win over these disillusioned voters.

The media will be the big obstacle. Though the public wants reform and BusinessWeek reports that economists are reconsidering their support of NAFTA-style trade deals, the Washington punditburo has long worshiped the status quo on this issue.

When NAFTA was originally debated and polls showed the country divided over its passage, the Washington Post's editorial page editor Meg Greenfield justified her refusal to publish anti-NAFTA commentary by saying that "columnists of the left, right and middle are all in agreement" in support of the deal. Today, that Orwellian blackout has mutated into an onslaught, with the Post's editorial board lambasting Obama for his fair trade rhetoric.

But as Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio told The Nation magazine, the naysaying should be ignored. Brown said the media attacked him for opposing NAFTA, "And so what? I won by well into double-digits, in a slightly Republican state, against an incumbent."

If Obama heeds that advice, neither Clintonian obfuscation nor media vitriol can stop him. He will be on his way to victory and, more importantly, to building a real mandate -- one that will finally force Washington to fix America's broken trade policy.

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